Long ago, when you decided if you wanted to jump into an MMO, you held it up against the benchmark of Everquest or World of Warcraft. Those games established the baseline for the industry: $50 - 60 for the box itself, plus a $10 - 15 monthly subscription fee. That's what you paid to get behind the velvet rope. During the reign of the subscription MMOs, "free-to-play" was a dirty word that caused veteran players to recoil in revulsion, hands outstretched like claws. F2P MMOs came from other countries - notably Southeast Asia - and they were affairs with far more "grind" than Western players liked.
That was the norm, until Turbine made a last ditch effort to save Dungeons and Dragons Online by converting it from a subscription game into a free-to-play game. It worked so well that the company also converted over Lord of the Rings Online. Once other prominent Western publishers and developers saw that the conversion could not only be done, but it could make flagging MMOs profitable, more conversions began to happen. Which brings us to today.
Over the weekend, Zenimax Online had a beta test for The Elder Scrolls Online, their attempt at grafting the popular Elder Scrolls brand onto a monthly subscription MMO. The feedback I've been seeing from the community after the recent beta has been somewhat positive. The problem Zenimax has is it hasn't been positive enough, and part of that is because Elder Scrolls Online's business model is at odds with many players' expectations of MMO value these days.
Some players have stated that they are fine with paying the $60 price for the game, but they can't see themselves shelling out $15 a month to keep playing. Some are fine with the monthly fee, but wonder why they're paying upfront to pay Zenimax more money in the future. And many are just waiting until the game "inevitably" goes free-to-play. That's even before getting to the players who feel Elder Scrolls Online sullies the good "Elder Scrolls" name and want nothing to do with the game.
The last five years or so have lent credence to the idea of most subscription MMOs eventually turning into free-to-play games. The list includes the aforementioned Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Everquest, Everquest II, DC Universe Online, The Secret World, Age of Conan, Rift, Star Trek Online, Champions Online, TERA, and the now-dead City of Heroes. That's a pretty big list of properties, some of which are arguably bigger than the Elder Scrolls. Some games are just skipping over the subscription part altogether and launching as free-to-play titles, like Neverwinter and Planetside 2. There's even pay-to-play titles like Guild Wars 2 and Defiance, where you you buy the game and its expansions, but microtransactions are generally limited to cosmetic items.
And many of those free-to-play and pay-to-play games provide excellent experiences, which has gone a long way towards changing player expectations. Why pay $60 and $15 every month when The Secret World offers a great story for cheaper? When Guild Wars 2 offers up a robust campaign and solid World PVP? When the action combat may not be as satisfying as TERA? Or when there's no way a new game can offer as much content as World of Warcraft?
It's not completely about Elder Scrolls Online being good or bad. We live in a different market than the one World of Warcraft launched into. In addition to free-to-play MMOs, many console and PC games are launching with a significant - and free - online component. We're no longer in days of buying a game, playing it for 20 - 40 hours, and being done with it; those single-player games still exist, but many publishers are trying to get you to play a game for a lot longer. And that's not even going into the MOBA and eSports craze.
Even the mighty WoW is down to 7.6 million subscribers as of November 2013, a big drop from its height of 12 million in late 2010. Final Fantasy XIV is the other major subscription MMO still standing and it's currently at 600,000 paid subscribers, according to Siliconera. Those are solid and profitable numbers, but it's not out of the question that the other games have taken the wind out of subscription sales.
These things cut into the perceived value of the classic MMO. They make players wonder if paying $60 plus a $15 monthly fee is worth it when considerable online fun can be had elsewhere for far less. If players hesitate to support Elder Scrolls Online because of its business model, it could hasten the "inevitable" shift towards free-to-play, something I doubt Zenimax Online wants to happen. There's a reason a number of studios and publishers have walked away from trying to develop an MMO: it's hard to launch a successful one and an unsuccessful one can kill a studio.
The question is if the $60/$15 model is too much, what is the sweet spot for subscription MMOs? What would players think is fair for a robust online massively multiplayer experience these days?